I know kimchi is the national dish of Korea — that it involves fermented cabbage. But I don’t know much about it, and I certainly don’t know how to eat it.
Then I dined with my friend Joanne.
Joanne immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea when she was a child. Now living in Los Angeles, she calls herself part of the 1.5 Generation, “…born in Korea but might as well been born here,” she explains.
I wanted her to enlighten me about kimchi but I didn’t want to assume that it’s part of her diet just because she’s of Korean descent. So on a day out, I broached the subject.
I asked her if we could go to an authentic Korean restaurant to experience kimchi. Her response?
A resounding Yes! followed by: “Dude, there are like 100s of types. Seriously.”
My response: “Really?” I didn’t know there was more than one type.
Joanne and I arrive at Chosun Galbee in L.A.’s Koreatown for dinner the following Saturday night. The place has a modern, chic atmosphere and is packed. Her mother, Heasook (she goes by Helen in the States), suggested the place, and according to Joanne, her mother is a kimchi expert.
Joanne grew up eating her mother’s kimchi on everything. A traditional Korean meal in her household wasn’t complete without it. She explains that her mother no longer makes kimchi and now travels out of town to buy it from one woman she trusts.
We grab a drink at the bar while we wait for a table, and Joanne strikes up a conversation with the restaurant’s manager. She tells him that we’re dining there for the kimchi. With a big smile he explains that they specialize in and serve just one type, and it’s made by the same woman for consistency of flavor and taste.
He points out that staying true to the ancient tradition of making kimchi can be a challenge for restaurants because the fermentation process must meet health and safety standards set forth by inspectors. He and Joanne further explain that making kimchi is labor-intensive and more of an art than a process.
The fermentation of the main vegetable and spices, including chili peppers, ginger and garlic, have to be just right. Over time, kimchi artists acquire an intuition and a feeling when preparing and watching the ingredients ferment. Joanne says the concept, translated into English, is “hand taste.” It’s an expression of love through cooking for someone.
The manager shows us to our table, and our server arrives. Joanne shares with her that I’m a kimchi newbie. Her eyes light up with delight. My palate is in their hands now.
Moments later, a tray carrying 10 small side dishes ranging from mild sweet potato noodles to pungent cabbage is presented to us. Joanne shares that Korean food is all about the side dishes and that her mother will always count them at restaurants. Anything less than 10 is not good.
Joanne points to the kimchi made of napa cabbage – the most common type of kimchi, she explains. Napa cabbage, native to China, is oblong and its compact leaves are well suited for the layering of kimchi spices.
Then larger plates of noodles and a massive seafood egg pancake quickly follow.
This is all just the starter, by the way.
I go right for the kimchi. As instructed by Joanne, I pick up a small piece with my chopsticks and put a little on a bite of pancake.
Joanne tells me the kimchi is too salty to eat on its own. (I have a friend who eats it straight out of a jar he buys from the supermarket. Then again, he admits he too doesn’t know how to eat kimchi.)
I take my first bite. My taste buds go into high alert with the punch of sour and spice. It’s not like biting into a stray chili in salsa, or the intensity of a vindaloo curry. Kimchi has a tang that complements the spice and makes it uniquely pleasing to eat.
Joanne is surprised that I like kimchi on first bite. She thought I would favor the sweet potato noodles — a dish favored by Korean children.
I turn my attention to a dish that resembles seaweed but is perilla leaves. “No!” Joanne warns that I take only a delicate, thin layer and eat a tiny portion. She’s not a fan of the herb. I found the leaves strong in flavor — a hint of licorice — but not offensive.
My chopsticks return to the kimchi.
I ask Joanne her thoughts about the mainstreaming of kimchi and seeing the traditional dishes that her mother would spend days, sometimes weeks preparing, being sold in big-box grocery stores.
“Other than what my mother made, kimchi wasn’t widely available when I was growing up in Chicago,” Joanne explains. “When I moved to Los Angeles, that’s when I saw it more. Koreans are proud of their culture and to see kimchi increase in popularity.”
Joanne points out that she has yet to find a store-bought brand that holds up to her mother’s kimchi.
“I personally prefer the taste of kimchi that’s more sour, having been fermented over longer periods.”
Our main meal of Korean barbecue — steak and rib meat — arrives. I’m full but continue eating. We begin our main course, and I ask Joanne, how popular is Korean barbecue in Korea?
She looks at me, smiles, and starts in. “You know, in Korea, Korean barbecue…”
I drive home that night musing about the dinner. The next weekend I ask my mom to try kimchi.